TheDC Analysis: Offshore drilling moratorium’s end is way overdue

Vince Coglianese Editorial Director
Font Size:

On Tuesday, the Obama administration finally announced the end of a politically motivated offshore drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. The drilling ban, originally scheduled to be lifted in November, has been the subject of a torrent of criticism from Gulf area residents and leadership.

Democratic Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu has been especially vocal in condemning the ban for unleashing a wave of compounded economic woes on Louisiana, including placing the state’s petroleum industry (its number one commodity) into gridlock, not to mention the vast number of businesses who exist solely to support the petroleum industry’s workers and their families.

It’s clear that the public is increasingly wary of the president’s capability to lead heading into the November midterms and the original institution of the moratorium in April, following the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, was hastily levied as public pressure mounted for the administration to take control of the seemingly devastating oil leak.

Pursuing a drilling moratorium was misguided from the start, and entirely questionable in its scope. A federal judge issued an injunction against the original ban citing a lack of information for the justification of limiting drilling over certain water depths. In his written opinion, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said, “An invalid agency decision to suspend drilling of wells in depths of over 500 feet simply cannot justify the immeasurable effect on the plaintiffs, the local economy, the Gulf region and the critical present-day aspect of the availability of domestic energy in this country.”

The administration doubled down on their policy as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar responded by implementing a more stringent ban based on the types of equipment seemingly associated with deep water drilling rigs. But as Landrieu and others have continuously noted, this resulted in shallow water drilling permits being thrust into a standstill as well, effectively disabling the entire industry in the Gulf.

Assessing only the impact of halting deep water drilling, an internal July memo from Michael Bromwich, director of the bureau of Ocean Energy, to Salazar estimated that the six month impact would result in over 23,000 jobs lost.

“There is no question that the imposition of a suspension on deep-water drilling activity will have a significant negative economic impact on direct and indirect employment in the oil and gas industry, as well as other secondary economic consequences,” said Bromwich.

The Associated Press reported earlier that “a federal report said the moratorium probably caused a temporary loss of 8,000 to 12,000 jobs in the Gulf region,” a questionable assessment to be sure, especially in light of the fact that the president’s own oil spill commission called the administration to task for withholding the true scope of the oil flow in the early days of the incident.

Much effort has been made to compare President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina with Obama’s response to the BP oil leak, but the gross demonstration of incompetence by the present administration should leave little doubt about which response was completely botched. President Obama, eager to placate environmental factions to his left, saw the opportunity to suspend domestic drilling as politically rewarding to that end and sought to appear decisive in the face of an event without a clear handbook for response.

Weak justifications for the ban included a desire to ensure safety standards were assessed before risking another spill, but alternatives to simply ending all drilling were endlessly suggested to the administration. One of the more promising ideas included installing federal inspectors on board new drilling operations to monitor safety practices, but the administration turned a deaf ear on the community’s outcries.

Now, a month from the scheduled lift date, and more importantly the midterm elections, the administration is grasping for success stories to offer the voting public. Hence the lifting of the onerous drilling moratorium. But under no circumstance should voters view this as a demonstration of competence.

The irony of the moratorium’s premature, but much needed end, is that it may compound negative reaction to the president by placing the drilling ban’s impact front and center on the national stage. Additionally, critics are deeply concerned that new safety regulations being pushed by the administration in the wake of the ban’s conclusion may result in many more months of a “de facto moratorium.”

The case against the government for continually thrusting its untrained hand into private industry is reaching its peak, and as the Tea Party has been emphasizing for nearly two years now, the midterms will most certainly be a referendum on the scope of government.